Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 1)

I first discovered Mike Davis’s work about a decade ago, through his book City of Quartz, a detailed and poetic look at the social geography of Los Angeles. Perhaps most memorably, City of Quartz describes the militarization of public space in LA, from the impenetrable “panic rooms” of Beverly Hills mansions to the shifting ganglands of South Central. Not only does the Los Angeles Police Department use “a geo-synchronous law enforcement satellite” in their literal oversight of the city, but “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.” In Los Angeles today, “carceral structures have become the new frontier of public architecture.”


A more wide-ranging book is Davis’s 2002 collection Dead Cities. The book ends with an invigorating bang: its final section, called “Extreme Science,” is a perfect example of how Davis’s work remains so consistently interesting. We come across asteroid impacts, prehistoric mass extinctions, Victorian disaster fiction, planetary gravitational imbalances, and even the coming regime of human-induced climate change, all in a book ostensibly dedicated to West Coast American urbanism.
Of course, Mike Davis’s particular breed of urban sociology has found many detractors – detractors who accuse Davis of falsifying his interviews, performing selective research, deliberately amplifying LA’s dark side (whether that means plate tectonics, police brutality, or race riots), and otherwise falling prey to battles in which Davis’s classically Marxist approach seems both inadequate and outdated. In fact, these criticisms are all justified in their own ways – yet I still find myself genuinely excited whenever a new book of his hits the bookshop display tables.
In any case, the following interview took place after the publication of Davis’s most recent book, Planet of Slums. Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell’s Urban Design Review, I won’t dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.”
This “urban” population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era’s most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed.
Mike Davis and I spoke via telephone.


BLDGBLOG: First, could you tell me a bit about the actual writing process of Planet of Slums? Was there any travel involved?

Davis: This was almost entirely an armchair journey. What I tried to do was read as much of the current literature on urban poverty, in English, as I could. Having four children, two of them toddlers, I only wish I could visit some of these places. On the other hand, I write from our porch, with a clear view of Tijuana, a city I know fairly well, and that’s influenced a lot of my thinking about these issues – although I tried scrupulously to avoid putting any personal journalism into the narrative.

Really, the book is just an attempt to critically survey and synthesize the literature on global urban poverty, and to expand on this extraordinarily important report of the United Nations – The Challenge of Slums – which came out a few years ago.

BLDGBLOG: So you didn’t visit the places you describe?

Davis: Well, I was initially anticipating writing a much longer book, but when I came to what should have been the second half of Planet of Slums – which looks at the politics of the slum – it became just impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature. I’m now collaborating on a second volume with a young guy named Forrest Hylton, who’s lived for several years in Colombia and Bolivia. I think his first-hand experience and knowledge makes up for most of my deficiencies, and he and I are now producing the second book.


BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the vocabulary that you use to describe this new “post-urban geography” of global slums: regional corridors, polycentric webs, diffuse urbanism, etc. I’m wondering if you’ve found any consistent forms or structures now arising, as cities turn away from centralized, geographically obvious locations, becoming fractal, slum-like sprawl.

Davis: First of all, the language with which we talk about metropolitan entities and larger-scale urban systems is already eclectic because urban geographers avidly debate these issues. I think there’s little consensus at all about the morphology of what lies beyond the classical city.

The most important debates really arose through discussions of urbanization in southern China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia – and that was about the nature of peri-urbanization on the dynamic periphery of large Third World cities.

BLDGBLOG: And “peri-urbanization” means what?

Davis: It’s where the city and the countryside interpenetrate. The question is: are you, in fact, looking at a snapshot of a very dynamic or perhaps chaotic process? Or will this kind of hybrid quality be preserved over any length of time? These are really open questions.

There are several different discussions here: one on larger-order urban systems – similar to the Atlantic seaboard or Tokyo-Yokohama, where metropolitan areas are linked in continuous physical systems. But then there’s this second debate about the spill-over into the countryside, this new peri-urban reality, where you have very complex mixtures of slums – of poverty – crossed with dumping grounds for people expelled from the center – refugees. Yet amidst all this you have small, middle class enclaves, often new and often gated. You find rural laborers trapped by urban sweatshops, at the same time that urban settlers commute to work in agricultural industries.

This, in a way, is the most interesting – and least-understood – dynamic of global urbanization. As I try to explain in Planet of Slums, peri-urbanism exists in a kind of epistemological fog because it’s not well-studied. The census data and social statistics are notoriously incomplete.


BLDGBLOG: So it’s more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?

Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.

The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.

BLDGBLOG: I don’t know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –

Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.

I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.


BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there’s a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it’s an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

BLDGBLOG: It’s even filmed like a first-person shooter. Several times you’re actually watching from right behind the gun.

Davis: It’s by Ridley Scott, isn’t it?

BLDGBLOG: Yeah – which is interesting, because he also directed Blade Runner.

Davis: Exactly. And he did Black Rain, didn’t he?

BLDGBLOG: The cryptic threat of late-1980s Japan…

Davis: Ridley Scott – more than anyone in Hollywood – has really defined the alien Other.

Of course, in reality, it’s not white guys in the Rangers who make up most of the military presence overseas: it’s mostly slum kids themselves, from American inner cities. The new imperialism – like the old imperialism – has this advantage, that the metropolis itself is so violent, with such concentrated poverty, that it produces excellent warriors for these far-flung military campaigns. I remember reading a brilliant book once by a former professor of mine, at the University of Edinburgh, on British imperial warfare in the nineteenth century. He showed, against every expectation, that, in fact, most often for the British Army, in imperial wars, what was decisive wasn’t their possession of better weapons, or artillery, or Maxim guns: it was the ability of the British soldier to engage in personal carnage, hand-to-hand combat, up close with bayonets – and that was strictly a function of the brutality of life in British slums.

Now, if you read the literature on warfare today, this is what the Pentagon’s really capitalizing on: they’re using the American inner city as a kind of combat laboratory, in addition to these urban test ranges they’ve built to study their new technologies. The slum dwellers’ response to this, and it’s a response that has yet to be answered – and maybe it’s unanswerable – is the poor man’s Air Force: the car bomb. That’s the subject of another book I’m finishing up right now, a short history of the car bomb. That has to be one of the most decisive military innovations of the late twentieth century. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq, it may be the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are killing Americans, but what’s just ripping that country apart is these fortified car bomb attacks. The car bomb has given poor people in slums – small groups and networks – a new, extremely traumatic kind of geopolitical leverage.

What’s happened, I think, at the end of the 20th century – and at the beginning of the 21st – is that the outcasts have discovered these extraordinarily cheap and horrific weapons. That’s why I argue, in Planet of Slums, that they have “the gods of chaos” on their side.


BLDGBLOG: Beyond a turn toward violence and insurgency, do you see any intentional, organized systems of self-government emerging in the slums? Is there a slum “mayor,” for instance, or a kind of slum city hall? In other words, who would a non-military power negotiate with in the first place?

Davis: Organization in the slums is, of course, extraordinarily diverse. The subject of the second book – that I’m writing with Forrest Hylton – will be what kinds of trends and unities exist within that diversity. Because in the same city – for instance, in a large Latin American city – you’ll find everything from Pentacostal churches to the Sendero Luminoso, to reformist organizations and neoliberal NGOs. Over very short periods of time there are rapid swings in popularity from one to the other – and back. It’s very difficult to find a directionality in that, or to predict where things might go.

But what is clear, over the last decade, is that the poor – and not just the poor in classical urban neighborhoods, but the poor who, for a long time, have been organized in leftwing parties, or religious groups, or populist parties – this new poor, on the fringes of the city, have been organizing themselves massively over the last decade. You have to be struck by both the number and the political importance of some of these emerging movements, whether that’s Sadr, in Iraq, or an equivalent slum-based social movement in Buenos Aires. Clearly, in the last decade, there have been dramatic increases in the organization of the urban poor, who are making new and, in some cases, unprecedented demands for political and economic participation. And where they are totally excluded, they make their voices heard in other ways.

BLDGBLOG: Like using car bombs?

Davis: I mean taking steps toward formal democracy. Because the other part of your question concerns the politics of poor cities. I’m sure that somebody could write a book arguing that one of the great developments of the last ten or fifteen years has been increased democratization in many cities. For instance, in cities that did not have consolidated governments, or where mayors were appointed by a central administration, you now have elections, and elected mayors – like in Mexico City.

What’s so striking, in almost all of these cases, is that even where there’s increased formal democracy – where more people are voting – those votes actually have little consequence. That’s for two reasons: one is because the fiscal systems of big cities in the Third World are, with few exceptions, so regressive and corrupt, with so few resources, that it’s almost impossible to redistribute those resources to voting people. The second reason is that, in so many cities – India is a great example of this – when you have more populist or participatory elections, the real power is simply transferred into executive agencies, industrial authorities, and development authorities of all kinds, which tend to be local vehicles for World Bank investment. Those agencies are almost entirely out of the control of the local people. They may even be appointed by the state or by a provisional – sometimes national – government.

This means that the democratic path to control over cities – and, above all, control over resources for urban reform – remains incredibly elusive in most places.


(This interview continues in Part Two. For another, recent two-part interview with Mike Davis, see TomDispatch: Part 1, Part 2. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman, who was also behind BLDGBLOG’s Helicopter Archipelago).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

Tokyo Secret City

This is an old story, but I still like telling it. Japanese researcher Shun Akiba has apparently discovered “hundreds of kilometers of Tokyo tunnels whose purpose is unknown and whose very existence is denied.”

[Image: From the LOMO Tokyo flickr pool; image by someone called wooooooo].

Shun, who believes he is now the victim of a conspiracy, stumbled upon “an old map in a secondhand bookstore. Comparing it to a contemporary map, he found significant variations. ‘Close to the Diet in Nagata-cho, current maps show two subways crossing. In the old map, they are parallel.'”
This unexpected parallelization of Tokyo’s subway tunnels – a geometrician’s secret fantasy – inspired Shun to seek out old municipal construction records. When no one wanted to help, however, treating him as if he were drunk or crazy – their “lips zipped tight” – he woke up to find his thighs sealed together with a transparent, jelly-like substance –
Er
Actually, he was so invigorated by this mysterious lack of interest that “he set out to prove that the two subway tunnels could not cross: ‘Engineering cannot lie.'”
But engineers can.
To make a long story short, there are “seven riddles” about this underground world, a secret Subtokyo of tunnels; the parallel subways were only mystery number one: “The second reveals a secret underground complex between Kokkai-gijidomae and the prime minister’s residence. A prewar map (riddle No. 3) shows the Diet in a huge empty space surrounded by paddy fields: ‘What was the military covering up?’ New maps (No. 4) are full of inconsistencies: ‘People are still trying to hide things.’ The postwar General Headquarters (No. 5) was a most mysterious place. Eidan’s records of the construction of the Hibiya Line (No. 6) are hazy to say the least. As for the ‘new’ O-Edo Line (No. 7), ‘that existed already.’ Which begs the question, where did all the money go allocated for the tunneling?”
Shun even “claims to have uncovered a secret code that links a complex network of tunnels unknown to the general public. ‘Every city with a historic subterranean transport system has secrets,’ he says. ‘In London, for example, some lines are near the surface and others very deep, for no obvious reason.'” (Though everyone knows the Tube is a weaving diagram for extraterrestrials).


Further, Shun reveals, “on the Ginza subway from Suehirocho to Kanda,” there are “many mysterious tunnels leading off from the main track. ‘No such routes are shown on maps.’ Traveling from Kasumigaseki to Kokkai-gijidomae, there is a line off to the left that is not shown on any map. Nor is it indicated in subway construction records.”
Old underground car parks, unofficial basements, locked doors near public toilets – and all “within missile range of North Korea.”
What’s going on beneath Tokyo?

(Thanks to Bryan Finoki for originally pointing this out to me! For similar such explorations of underground London, see London Topological; and for more on underground Tokyo, see Pillars of Tokyo – then read about the freaky goings-on of Aum Shinrikyo, the subway-gassing Japanese supercult. And if you’ve got information on other stuff like this – send it in…)

Faucets of Manhattan

“About 600 feet deep in the bedrock that supports Midtown Manhattan,” we meet “a 450-ton tunnel-boring machine known as the Mole.”
The Mole is “digging City Tunnel No. 3 far beneath Manhattan’s street level, part of a 50-year, $6 billion project to upgrade New York City’s water system.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

As the New York Times describes, this is actually the “second phase of City Tunnel No. 3, a 60-mile tunnel that began in the Bronx in 1970 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. By then, the tunnel will be able to handle the roughly one billion gallons of water a day used in New York City that originates from rural watersheds to points throughout the city.” And though the tunnel “is one of the largest urban projects in history, few people will ever see it. But beginning next week, many New Yorkers will certainly feel and hear the construction.”

[Images: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

The speed of the excavation process “varies based upon the hardness of the rock it encounters. The task of determining what type of rock lies in its path falls to Eric Jordan, a geologist hired by the city. By drilling down and hand-picking rocks from the tunnels, Mr. Jordan has created a precise map of the type of rock under Manhattan. His involvement in the tunnel project makes his geologist friends jealous. ‘For a geologist,’ he said, ‘this is like going to Disneyland.'”
Jordan’s “precise map” of Manhattan bedrock would indeed be something to see; but until then, we can make an educated guess about the rock his tunnel will find by turning to Richard Fortey.
In his highly recommended book, Earth, Fortey visits Central Park. First you notice the skyline of towers, he writes. “Then you notice the rocks. Cropping out in places under the trees are dark mounds of rock, emerging from the ground like some buried architecture of a former race, partly exhumed and then forgotten… That New York can be built so high and mighty is a consequence of its secure foundations on ancient rocks. It pays its dues to the geology. This is just a small part of one of those old seams that cross the earth… relics of a deeper time when millennia counted for nothing.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

John McPhee picks up this lithic line of thought in Annals of the Former World. Archipelago New York, he writes, is made of “rock that had once been heated near the point of melting, had recrystallized, had been heated again, had recrystallized, and, while not particularly competent, was more than adequate to hold up those buildings… Four hundred and fifty million years in age, it was called Manhattan Schist.”
Of course, we can also turn to the U.S. National Geologic Map Database, and find our very own bedrock maps –


– which, awesomely, include Times Square, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the Museum of Modern Art, all floating above a sea of solid Manhattan Schist.
In any case, the new tunnel being dug to power the faucets of Manhattan are supplements to the pharaonic, 19th-century Croton hydrological network that keeps New York in taps (including the now derelict, yet Historically Registered, Old Croton Aqueduct). You can read about the Croton Dam, for instance, here or here; and there’s yet more to learn about the Croton project, including how to follow it by trail, here.

[Image: Photograph by Robert Polidori, from “City of Water” by David Grann, The New Yorker, September 1, 2003].

Finally, in 2003 The New Yorker published an excellent article by David Grann called “City of Water,” about, yes, City Tunnel No. 3. I’ll quote from it here briefly before urging you to find a copy at your local library and read it for yourself.
Until Grann actually accompanied the tunnel workers – called sandhogs – underground, he “had only heard tales of New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes. Two main tunnels provide New York City with most of the 1.3 billion gallons of water it consumes each day, ninety per cent of which is pumped in from reservoirs upstate by the sheer force of gravity. Descending through aqueducts from as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the water gathers speed, racing down to a thousand feet below sea level when it reaches the pipes beneath the city.”
Two main tunnels, he writes – and, thus, City Tunnel No. 3.
But I’ll stop there – after I point out that toward the end of the ludicrously bad Die Hard III, Jeremy Irons temporarily escapes the less than threatening eye of Bruce Willis by driving out of Manhattan through similar such aqueducting tunnels.

(For more tunnels: See BLDGBLOG’s London Topological or The Great Man-Made River; then check out The Guardian on London’s so-called CTRL Project, with a quick visit to that city’s cranky old 19th-century sewers, the “capital’s bowels”… Enjoy!).

Roof-farming southeast London


Swiss Cheese City, by London-based architecture firm Agents of Change (AOC), proposes that “vacancy in cities” is really “a starting point for a new urban form.” Accordingly, the project hopes to “generate new possibilities from holes in the built fabric,” such as “Special Cultivation Zones (SCZs).”
Special Cultivation Zones are an urban land-bank, defined by “temporary boundaries within which land can’t be bought or sold, and emerging skills, social networks and locally-grown produce are cultivated in the ‘vacant’ city fabric.”
(For more on urban farming, see Pruned or Inhabitat).
Then there’s AOC’s Croydon Roof Divercity project –


– which radically rethinks the landscape of Croydon’s roofs (and sounds really, really fun): “Taking the flat roofs of Croydon as our testbed,” they write, “we propose a new roofscape for the city – beaches, ice rinks, golf courses, allotments, skateboard parks and pasture refresh Croydon’s tired concrete.” How about a shooting range? (For more on green roofs, see Inhabitat).
After all, AOC asks, how could London be adapted “to an agricultural logic – the logic of rotation, seasons, ground and growth?”
Thus, with a vision straight out of sci-fi, they describe Hackney New Garden City, complete with an “Agricultural Action Zone (AAZ).” This would include “a self-sufficient ecology of grass roads, localised rainwater collection, organic solar films and biological compost systems… liberating the ground’s agricultural potential.”


[Images: Hackney New Garden City, before and after].

For another place you could put those ideas to work, see Philadelphia’s Urban Voids; then check out these photos of “arbortecture” – or, plants growing out of buildings. (Via Pruned).

London Topological

[Image: Embankment, London, ©urban75].

As something of a sequel to BLDGBLOG’s earlier post, Britain of Drains, we re-enter the sub-Britannic topology of interlinked tunnels, drains, sewers, Tubes and bunkers that curve beneath London, Greater London, England and the whole UK, in rhizomic tangles of unmappable, self-intersecting whorls.

[Images: The Bunker Drain, Warrington; and the Motherload Complex, Bristol (River Frome Inlets); brought to you by the steroidally courageous and photographically excellent nutters at International Urban Glow].

Whether worm-eaten by caves, weakened by sink-holes, rattled by the Tube or even sculpted from the inside-out by secret government bunkers – yes, secret government bunkers – the English earth is porous.

“The heart of modern London,” Antony Clayton writes, “contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres… [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.”

[Images: Down Street, London, by the impressively omnipresent Nick Catford, for Subterranea Britannica; I particularly love the multi-directional valve-like side-routes of the fourth photograph].

This unofficially real underground world pops up in some very unlikely places: according to Clayton, there is an electricity sub-station beneath Leicester Square which “is entered by a disguised trap door to the left of the Half Price Ticket Booth, a structure that also doubles as a ventilation shaft.”

This links onward to “a new 1 1/4 mile tunnel that connects it with another substation at Duke Street near Grosvenor Square.”

But that’s not the only disguised ventilation shaft: don’t forget the “dummy houses,” for instance, at 23-24 Leinster Gardens, London. Mere façades, they aren’t buildings at all, but vents for the underworld, disguised as faux-Georgian flats.

(This reminds me, of course, of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum, where the narrator is told that, “People walk by and they don’t know the truth… That the house is a fake. It’s a façade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”).

[Image: The Motherload Complex, Bristol – again, by International Urban Glow].

There is also a utility subway – I love this one – accessed “through a door in the base of Boudicca’s statue near Westminster Bridge.” (!) The tunnel itself “runs all the way to Blackfriars and then to the Bank of England.”

Et cetera.

[Images: The Works Drain, Manchester; International Urban Glow].

My personal favorite by far, however, is British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell’s December 1980 piece for the New Statesman, now something of a cult classic in Urban Exploration circles.

[Image: Motherload Complex, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

“Entering, without permission, from an access shaft situated on a traffic island in Bethnal Green Road he descended one hundred feet to meet a tunnel, designated L, stretching into the distance and strung with cables and lights.” He had, in other words, discovered a government bunker complex that stretched all the way to Whitehall.

On and on he went, all day, for hours, riding a folding bicycle through this concrete, looking-glass world of alphabetic cyphers and location codes, the subterranean military abstract: “From Tunnel G, Tunnel M leads to Fleet Street and P travels under Leicester Square to the then Post Office Tower, with Tunnel S crossing beneath the river to Waterloo.”

[Image: Like the final scene from a subterranean remake of Jacob’s Ladder (or a deleted scene from Creep [cheers, Timo]), it’s the Barnton Quarry, ROTOR Drain, Edinburgh; International Urban Glow].

Here, giving evidence of Clayton’s “accidental disclosures reported in the news media,” we read that “when the IMAX cinema inside the roundabout outside Waterloo station was being constructed the contractor’s requests to deep-pile the foundations were refused, probably owing to the continued presence of [Tunnel S].”

[Image: Motherload, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

But when your real estate is swiss-cheesed and under-torqued by an unreal world of remnant topologies, the lesson, I suppose, is you have to read between the lines.

A simple building permissions refusal might be something else entirely: “It was reported,” Clayton says, “that in the planning stage of the Jubilee Line Extension official resistance had been encountered, when several projected routes through Westminster were rejected without an explanation, although no potential subterranean obstructions were indicated on the planners’ maps. According to one source, ‘…the rumour is that there is a vast bunker down there, which the government has kept secret, which is the grandaddy of them all.'”

[Image: The Corsham Tunnels; see also BLDGBLOG].

Continuing to read between the lines, Clayton describes how, in 1993, after “close scrutiny of the annual Defence Works Services budget the existence of the so-called Pindar Project was revealed, a plan for a nuclear bomb-proof bunker, that had cost £66 million to excavate.”

All of these places have insane names—Pindar, Cobra, Trawlerman, ICARUS, Kingsway, Paddock—and they are hidden in the most unlikely places. Referring to a government bunker hidden in the ground near Reading: “Inside, they tried another door on what looked like a cupboard. This was also unlocked, and swung open to reveal a steep staircase leading into an underground office complex.”

[Images: The freaky stairs and tunnels, encrusted with plaster stalactites, of King William Street].

Everything leads to everything else; there are doorways everywhere. It’s like a version of London rebuilt to entertain quantum physicists, with a dizzying self-intersection of systems hitting systems as layers of the city collide.

[Image: Belsize Park, from the terrifically useful Underground History of Hywel Williams].

There is always another direction to turn.

[Image: The Shorts Brothers Seaplane Factory and air raid shelter, Kent; photo by Underground Kent].

This really could go on and on; there are flood control complexes, buried archives, lost rivers sealed inside concrete viaducts – and all of this within the confines of Greater London.

[Images: London’s Camden catacombs – “built in the 19th Century as stables for horses… [t]heir route can be traced from the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at regular intervals into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the horses below” – as photographed by Nick Catford of Subterranea Brittanica].

Then there’s Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh, Kent…

[Image: Main Junction, Bunker Drain, Warrington; International Urban Glow].

And for all of that, I haven’t even mentioned the so-called CTRL Project (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link); or Quatermass and the Pit, an old sci-fi film where deep tunnel Tube construction teams unearth a UFO; or the future possibilities such material all but demands.

[Image: Wapping Tunnel Vent, Liverpool, by International Urban Glow; a kind of subterranean Pantheon].

Such as: BLDGBLOG: The Game, produced by LucasArts, set in the cross-linked passages of subterranean London, where it’s you, a torch, some kind of weapon, a shitty map and hordes of bird flu infected zombies coughing their way down the dripping passages – looking for you

Subterranean bunker-cities


[Image: A map of Wiltshire’s Ridge quarry/bunker system; see below].

An article I’ve not only forwarded to several people but planned whole screenplays around, frankly, reveals that there is a sprawling complex of tunnels located beneath Belgrade.
There, a recent police investigation “into the mysterious shooting of two soldiers has revealed the existence beneath the Serbian capital of a secret communist-era network of tunnels and bunkers that could have served as recent hideouts for some of the world’s most-wanted war crimes suspects. The 2-square-mile complex – dubbed a ‘concrete underground city’ by the local media – was built deep inside a rocky hill in a residential area of Belgrade in the 1960s on the orders of communist strongman Josip Broz Tito. Until recently its existence was known only to senior military commanders and politicians.”
So how big is this concrete underground city?
“Tunnels stretching for hundreds of yards link palaces, bunkers and safe houses. Rooms are separated by steel vault doors 10 feet high and a foot thick. The complex has its own power supply and ventilation.”
But hundreds of yards? That’s nothing.


A secret, 240-acre underground bunker-city has recently come onto the UK housing market.


With 60 miles of tunnels, located 120 feet underground, the whole complex is worth about 5 million quid.


The complex was constructed “in a former mine near Corsham in Wiltshire where stone was once excavated… for the fine houses of Bath.”
This subterranean city, as the Times tells us, “was a munitions dump and a factory for military aircraft engines. It was equipped with what was then the second largest telephone exchange in Britain and a BBC studio from where the prime minister could make broadcasts to what remained of the nation.”
Radio broadcasts echoing across a landscape of craters.


And now it’s for sale.


[A note on these images: these are all photographs – by the very talented and highly prolific Nick Catford – of the Ridge Quarry, in Corsham, Wiltshire, which geographically matches with the Times description, above. That said, the description of the Ridge Quarry provided by Subterranea Britannica does not seem to indicate that we are, in fact, looking at the same mine/quarry/bunker system. (There is a discrepancy in the amount of acreage, for instance). Anyone out there with info, thoughts, or other et ceteras, please feel free to comment… Either way, however, they’re cool images, and Subterranea Britannica is always worth a visit now and again].

The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Britain of Drains


Here are some absolutely spectacular photographs of sewers, drains and tunnels, taken by urban spelunkers from London, Bristol, Manchester and beyond:


[Images: See this ridiculously great website for loads more photographs – almost every one of which could be uploaded onto BLDGBLOG with open enthusiasm – as well as for relevant bits of info on tunnel locations and all further et ceteras; meanwhile, an upcoming BLDGBLOG entry will pursue more of this, with a London bias, soon].


An entrance to the topological undercity, a parallel world of drains and bricked abstract passages, monolithic concrete feeder chutes re-leading lost rivers through darkness.

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”


Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.


“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).


“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”


But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:


Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…